knew it spelled trouble. The woman's voice on my
answering tape trembled and was clearly stressed.
Her message was abrupt: "Please call me back
as soon as possible." She left her name and
number but no explanation why she called.
I didn't recognize her name. But
the 253- prefix on her number meant she lived in
Damascus near our home. This can only mean one
thing, I concluded. One of our boys have gotten
into trouble. This woman wants to give me an
earful. They've damaged her property and she
wants me to pay.
Wanting to defuse the problem as
quickly as possible, I called her back
immediately, even though it was already 10:00
p.m. I was surprised to get her answering tape,
since she'd just phoned a half hour before.
Disappointed, I left my name and number and told
her to call me anytime.
When I awoke the next morning, I
felt like a dark cloud was hanging over the day.
I'm going to have to engage in a difficult,
confrontive conversation with this woman, I
mused. That thought nagged me all morning and
afternoon, as I anxiously waited for her call. I
couldn't understand why she was taking so long to
Finally around 5:00 p.m. she
phoned. I recognized her voice immediately and
braced for a confrontation. To my surprise, she
asked why I had phoned her. I
explained I was returning her call which I
assumed concerned one of my boys and mentioned
their names. "I don't either of your sons or
you," she replied. "I must have dialed
your number by mistake."
Curious how this could have
happened, I asked if she'd been looking for a
pastor and picked my name at random from the
phone directory. "No," she answered,
"but I could sure use a pastor right now--my
life is a mess!"
Since she didn't offer any
detail, we ended the conversation pleasantly. I
hung up the phone, stunned that I'd worried all
day about a problem I'd invented. Not only was
she not angry at me or anyone in my family--she
hadn't been thinking about us at all! The stress
in her voice on my tape had nothing to do with
ill feelings toward us. It simply meant she was,
well, stressed. I had misread the cues at every
point. And made myself miserable in the process.
A Common Mistake
How easily we misread others'
negative feelings. We've all had the experience,
probably more often than we like to admit. We've
sensed someone was angry or hurt, then worried
ourselves sick about what they were thinking. We
assumed they were angry at us, intent on
confronting or hurting us. In time we found we
hadn't a clue what they were really thinking.
Their hostility wasn't directed at us at all but
toward their own pressing problems. They may even
have welcomed our encouragement and listening
When it comes to imagining what
others think of us, it's easy to fall into a
pattern of expecting the worst. Paranoia
is what we often call it lightheartedly today.
This is slang, of course, for paranoia in the
clinical sense is a serious psychological
problem. True paranoids are pathologically
suspicious of others' motives. Many suffer
psychotic delusions about being watched or
Most of us are not about to join
a local militia to defend ourselves against
encroaching evil forces of government. Nor do we
imagine that aliens have implanted listening
devices under our skin. Yet we do spend a lot of
energy worrying about what others think of us. We
may assume instinctively that others don't like
us, even when no evidence suggests it. Such
pessimistic thinking is a serious enough problem
for many of us that it helps to have a word for
it, even if we use it somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
The tragedy is that even this
"normal" paranoia can hinder us from
realizing our potential for Christ and
experiencing the abundant life he promised. Our
negative assumptions about what others think of
us can cause us to envision failure at points
where God will enable to us succeed. We may fail
to recognize golden opportunities in
relationships, career and other areas. We need to
recognize this mentality for what it is. And we
need to take steps to ensure it doesn't become a
controlling factor in our life.
Paranoia in Scripture
We don't find the word paranoia
or any equivalent in Scripture. Yet there are
plenty of examples of it--both the extreme
problem and the more common apprehensions about
people we all experience. We see true paranoids:
Laban, the father of Rebecca; Pharaoh, king of
Egypt during the Exodus; Saul, Ahab, and other
Old Testament kings; Haman, the king's friend in
the book of Esther; and Herod, king of Israel at
the time of Jesus' birth. False assumptions about
others' motives led some of them, such as Herod,
to commit murder and other heinous acts.
Yet we also see many examples of
godly individuals worrying unnecessarily about
being hurt or rejected by others. Moses is a
prime example. When he was forty, he killed an
Egyptian whom he caught abusing a fellow
Israelite. Fear of retaliation from the incident
led Moses to seek refuge in the desert of Midian.
While his fear was justified at first, he
remained in seclusion there for forty
years--surely long beyond the point when he faced
any real danger in Egypt.
Throughout this time in Midian he
lived greatly beneath his potential, and
Israelites in Egypt were deprived of his gift of
passionate leadership. Inferiority set in so
severely that when God finally told him
explicitly through the burning bush to deliver
Israel, Moses could only imagine failure and
rejection. Even though he had the promise of an
angel and God himself that he would succeed, he
declared, "But behold, they will not believe
me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The
LORD did not appear to
you'" (Ex 4:1 RSV).
Certain paranoid assumptions were
obviously behind Moses' intense fear of
rejection. He was convinced others were repelled
by his hesitant speaking style and probably
assumed people thought poorly of him in general.
He feared some still sought his life in Egypt (Ex
4:19). And he probably believed his reputation
was tarnished among Israelites and Egyptians
alike because of his misdeed forty years before.
Of course when Moses did venture
forth and speak to the Israelites, their response
was radically different from what he anticipated.
His negative expectations were shattered. It's
expressed in one of the most beautifully ironic
statements in Scripture: "And the people
believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of
Israel and that he had seen their affliction,
they bowed their heads and worshiped" (Ex
It's to Moses' credit that he
found the resolve to respond to God's call in
spite of the most extreme inhibitions. Yet if God
hadn't spoken to him so dramatically, it's
doubtful he ever would have broken the inertia.
His example reminds us how easily paranoid
thinking can blind us to good opportunities and
keep us from the best God desires for us.
Letting Go of Paranoia
Fortunately, there is much we can
do to address the problem. Clinical paranoia, to
be sure, is a serious problem that requires
professional help. Yet the normal fears we all
experience about others being against us can
usually be dealt with effectively through certain
practical steps. Here are some suggestions that
Face your concerns honestly in prayer and
reaffirm your faith in Christ. The impact
of paranoid feelings can be reduced greatly
through prayer. This is one of the most important
lessons of the psalms--and one of their best-kept
The worries we have about others
disliking or rejecting us are mild compared to
the apprehensions David expresses in many of his
psalms. He fills them with ruminations about the
evil designs of his enemies. Of course, as the
chief political leader in Israel, David had
plenty of real enemies and faced legitimate
threats from them. Yet in spite of his spiritual
maturity, he was anything but unruffled by their
plans. The psalms depict a deeply human side of
David and show that he spent a lot of time and
energy brooding over the malicious intentions
others had toward him. For instance:
My enemies say of me in
"When will he die and his name
Whenever one comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers
then he goes out and spreads it abroad.
All my enemies whisper together against me;
they imagine the worst for me, saying,
"A vile disease has beset him;
he will never get up from the place where he
Even my close friend, whom I trusted,
he who shared my bread,
has lifted up his heel against me.
We can take comfort from David's
example in this psalm that we're not
psychologically imbalanced just because we're
preoccupied with what others think about us.
David often was, even though he was one of the
most spiritually impressive personalities in
Scripture. His apprehensions in this psalm go
well beyond our own in most cases. We can rest
assured that the fears we typically have about
others being against us are normal and human.
David's example is equally
encouraging in showing us the freedom we should
feel to express our concerns to God in prayer.
David's expression of concern in this psalm is
blatant and graphic. It shows that we don't have
to mince words in sharing our anxieties with God.
If we fear animosity or rejection from someone,
we can tell God so and tell him explicitly.
Yet David did more than just
ventilate by praying in this fashion. He went an
important step further and affirmed that he
trusted God in spite of his fears. He concludes
the psalm by declaring,
I know that you are pleased
for my enemy does not triumph over me.
In my integrity you uphold me
and set me in your presence forever.
Praise be to the LORD,
the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.
Here we discover the major
benefit of prayer for David. Through it he was
able to regain his confidence in the Lord and put
his fears in right perspective. We find David
following this pattern of expressing anxiety and
then reaffirming his faith in psalm after psalm.
Prayer can help us in a similar
way when we fall into paranoid thinking.
Following David's example, we should begin by
expressing our concerns frankly to God. Yet we
shouldn't stop there. In a spirit of prayer we
should then reaffirm our conviction that God is
protecting us and working for the best in our
life. Following this process gives him the best
opportunity to strengthen our faith, calm our
fears, and show us where our thinking is
Scripture shows that God extends
far more grace and healing to us through prayer
than we normally imagine. The therapeutic value
of prayer in helping us work through negative
feelings is immense.
Check your thinking. Whenever we catch
ourselves obsessing about others being hostile or
unsupportive toward us, we should stop and check
our thinking. Is there really any reasonable
basis for our fear? Or is it more likely that
we're giving way to paranoid thinking out of
habit? It can help to recall similar situations
in the past when our negative assumptions proved
mistaken. The lesson of that recent phone call is
one I'll not soon forget.
It's good to make a habit of
examining our thinking and questioning our
assumptions. If we're prone to pessimistic
thinking in general, it's a good rule of thumb to
assume that our conclusions are probably too
negative. With practice we can learn to stay more
tentative in our assumptions about what others
think and not to instinctively expect the worst.
Practice optimism. It's been said
that Ronald Reagan's remarkable success with
people was due to his personal expectations. He
always assumed that everyone he encountered liked
him. When he was president, Reagan maintained
surprisingly good relationships with many
political enemies. His arch nemesis, Speaker of
the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, once
declared, "I find it impossible to dislike
Should we strive for such blatant
positive thinking personally? Well . . . If I had
to choose between the extremes--assuming everyone
likes me or assuming everyone hates me--I'd
choose the former. It's closer to a healthy
outlook on relationships, and our expectations so
often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Such extreme positive thinking,
though, simply isn't possible for most of us.
Besides, it's a denial of reality. None of us, no
matter how likeable, will succeed in every effort
to relate to others. Rejection and difficult
encounters will occur from time to time. Still,
there is an outlook of optimism which is
appropriate and healthy for us as Christians.
We can assume as an article of
faith that God desires our very best and is
working for good in countless ways behind the
scenes in our lives. It's right also to assume
that he desires us to enjoy significant success
in relating to people and that this is an area
where he extends his help and healing to us. To
worry incessantly about others being against us
is a denial of God's love for us and his creative
power at work in others. We're on better ground
to assume that encouraging developments are
occurring in the situations we cannot see and to
maintain reasonable hope for positive outcomes.
We can also be confident that if
a difficult encounter with someone does occur,
God will give us the grace to handle it. Since we
can never predict exactly how God will
provide grace until it happens, it's pointless to
worry ourselves sick about how he will do it. We
can simply trust that grace will be given at the
moment we need it.
important principle of optimism is learning to
see bad experiences as aberrations and not the
norm--a point Martin Seligman stresses in his
excellent book Learned Optimism.* Too often we do the
opposite. When someone treats us unkindly, for
instance, the experience can be unsettling. In
our discouraged frame of mind it's easy to begin
imagining others being equally insensitive. We
may even conclude that God is punishing us
through this person's unkindness and that he'll
continue to do so in the way others treat us. We
reason from the specific to the general in a way
that is completely unjustified.
If a clear lesson can be gained
from a discouraging experience with someone, we
should learn it and benefit from it. But apart
from strong evidence, we shouldn't assume that
the experience indicates how others will treat
us. In all likelihood the event is isolated. And
in no case should we think that the hand of God
has turned against us. To the contrary, we should
call to mind promises of Scripture which assure
us that God gives special grace to his people in
difficult times. "You are my fortress, my
refuge in times of trouble" (Ps 59:16; see
also Ps 9:9, 27:5, 32:7, 41:1, 46:1, 50:15,
91:15, 107:6, 138:7).
With time and practice we can
learn to focus our thinking in such optimistic
directions. We should remind ourselves of these
principles often and call them to mind whenever
we're inclined to worry that someone is
ill-disposed toward us.
Sharpen your people skills. There is a
further point to remember which helps greatly to
reduce feelings of paranoia. We each have far
more ability to defuse negative feelings others
have toward us than we usually assume. What if
we're right?--someone is angry or
frustrated with us. That doesn't mean we're
powerless to do anything to improve the
situation. This person may be more open to
dialogue with us than we think. A sensitive,
affirming response to them may do wonders to
change their feelings and resolve the problem.
Anything we do to improve our
skills with people can reduce our tendency to
worry about what they think, for we'll be more
confident we can handle problems that arise. It's
the belief that we're helpless in dealing with
people that makes us prone to paranoid thinking.
Taking a seminar or reading a book on how to
better relate to people can help; getting
professional counsel can benefit us as well. We
should take whatever steps we can to reduce any
sense of being a victim--in relating to people or
in any area of life.
Move ahead in spite of your fears. During
my years of resource ministry I've spoken on many
conferences for Christian groups whose
theological convictions differ from mine at
certain points. In the early years of this
ministry I felt awkward going into these
retreats, fearing that confrontational situations
would arise. Yet in over twenty years of
conference speaking this has rarely happened. In
most cases people have been gracious, the
conference has gone well, and what unites us has
prevailed over what divides us.
These retreat experiences have
been so rewarding that I've gradually grown
comfortable speaking to diverse groups, and now
am more inclined to expect the best than the
worst. Yet it's taken time
and--especially--experience to reach this point.
No amount of study or reflecting could have
taught me the lessons I've learned by walking
these through experiences I expected to be
Manuel Zane and Harry Milt note that the most
common fallacy people have about conquering fear
is that we must overcome our apprehensions first
before facing situations we dread. It never works
this way, they observe. Some progress can be made
by working on our thinking. Yet the point always
comes when we must have some hands-on experience
doing what we fear. Only then do we prove our
fears to be the strawmen they really are.*
This principle applies not only
to conquering phobias but to overcoming any
inhibitions that hold us back--including paranoid
assumptions about people. Stepping into social
situations that we fear will be uncomfortable is
essential to putting unreasonable apprehensions
We spend far too much of our
life's energy worrying about negative reactions
from people which never occur. Far too often our
gloomy expectations keep us from taking important
steps of faith. Through prayer and careful
reflection we can begin to change our patterns of
thinking and reshape our expectations into more
optimistic ones. God may give us special healing
as well. Yet we shouldn't assume that all
apprehensions must vanish before we take
difficult steps. Moving forward even with some
inhibitions will be necessary, to realize our
potential for Christ and to change our outlook as
I'm speaking of practical steps
Phoning for the date
Requesting the job interview
Seeking an improvement in our job
Asking for forgiveness
Sharing our faith with someone who needs to hear
Throwing the party at our home
Asking someone to help us with a special need
Visiting the church or Sunday School class
Through the strength Christ gives
us we can find the courage to take steps like
these in spite of our inhibitions--and open
ourselves to the fullest blessings of God.